SCHENECTADY — For weeks, New Yorkers have been glued to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings, a blend of hard facts and sooth-saying dispensed through the governor's beloved data-rich PowerPoint presentations.
As the coronavirus pandemic deepens, counties are also refining their communication strategies, providing an additional layer of localized information, from explaining the latest state directives to emerging cases in their communities.
Albany and Rensselaer counties are now holding daily Facebook Live events.
Montgomery County, too, has used the platform, and joins Saratoga and Rensselaer counties in issuing daily press releases with the latest state data on positive diagnoses.
Counties differ in the amount of data they choose to disclose.
Schoharie County offers daily updates on positive cases and efforts to notify others who may have come into contact with the person. Rensselaer County provides the locations and ages of new diagnoses, and more recently, the recovery rates. Saratoga County offers numbers on hospitalizations, while Montgomery County shares the number of people who are being monitored and are under self-quarantine.
Until pressed by The Daily Gazette on Wednesday, Schenectady County has provided none of those figures, instead opting to publish the number of positive cases on their website with no additional information.
Once-daily press releases have dropped off. Until Wednesday night when the county released updated information after two days of questioning from The Gazette, the most recent media advisory was issued Sunday, a one-sentence alert that a local Dunkin' will drop off a donation to the county’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Coalition.
And county public health officials aren’t scheduled to update the county Legislature until April 7.
“I will do all I can to provide these numbers on a daily basis,” said county spokesperson Erin Roberts when asked on Wednesday if the county will start releasing a level of data more comparable with its Capital Region counterparts.
Roberts acknowledged the volume of questions coming in from their website and social media platforms has increased.
But asked if the county planned on holding press briefings or providing regular updates, she advised residents to monitor the county’s website and social media channels.
“Community updates are posted as service availability changes and other important information is added,” Roberts said.
The county has boosted its social media presence to provide COVID-19-related information, Roberts said, and is offering new services, including online training courses and access to digitized records.
William Rivas, founder of Save Our Streets, praised the county’s delivery of services, including mental health counseling and meal programs to students, who remain at home.
But he acknowledged those efforts perhaps are not being communicated properly.
“That's something we can work on,” Rivas said. “In our evolving society, it's important to use all methods of communication to get information to as many people as possible.”
At the same time, the social media-only policy being pursued by the county may carve out broad elements of the population, particularly inner-city residents, who may not have access to technology, particularly as the economic ramifications of the pandemic continue to deepen, Rivas said.
"If it comes down to the lights, that tablet is going to go,” Rivas said.
Unlike Saratoga Springs, where city officials held a press conference Tuesday warning people they may face fines for continuing to congregate outdoors, Mayor Gary McCarthy said the city has no plans to do so.
"I think the press events are inconsistent with non-promoting social gatherings," said McCarthy, who pointed at several news releases issued by his office recently, including its decision to close playgrounds and promote participation in the U.S. Census.
HOSPITALIZATION RATE CLIMBS
Schenectady County's sluggish pace in releasing information comes when fatalities are sharply increasing across the state, which is the hardest-hit in the nation.
The death toll in New York state reached 1,941 by Wednesday morning, an increase of 391 over the day before.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo braced New Yorkers for a long battle.
“We’re all in search of the apex and the other side of the mountain,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “But we are still headed up the mountain.”
Forecasting models place the peak of the outbreak at the end of the month, Cuomo said.
Albany County confirmed its second death on Wednesday morning, and the death toll in Schenectady County now stands at 5, up one from Tuesday, according to Roberts.
But the hospitalization rate shot up 50 percent overnight.
Twenty-one people were hospitalized at Ellis Hospital as of Wednesday morning — up from 14 on Tuesday, said Philip Schwartz, the hospital’s spokesperson.
Seven patients at Ellis are under investigation for COVID-19, and 350 people are currently under self-quarantine in Schenectady County. There are 93 confirmed cases.
As casualties begin to mount, a patchwork approach is emerging across the state.
While the state Department of Health provides daily updates on positive tests for each county, it does not release the same localized information on fatalities, instead giving each county discretion on how to release that information.
County public health departments statewide are scrambling to balance public safety with patient privacy, according to a state official.
"They're trying to bring dignity to a process that's unprecedented.”
Saratoga and Albany counties have openly disclosed deaths, but Schenectady did not start providing those numbers until Tuesday.
Schenectady County Legislature Majority Leader Gary Hughes said on Tuesday officials will discuss a strategy for releasing fatality numbers on a daily basis.
"That's not something we have an active protocol for right now,” Hughes said.
The lack of a centralized clearing house to provide information on fatalities has already led to confusion.
Despite conflicting accounts issued by Kingsway Community earlier this week regarding a patient death and resident hospitalizations, county officials deferred on confirming a death for much of Tuesday, citing medical privacy laws.
Hughes said it’s important to strike a balance between public safety and privacy.
"We have to be very careful to protect the confidentiality involved,” Hughes said.
Asked if he believed the county had a responsibility to present the death toll to the public, Hughes indicated the state should take the lead.
"At some point during an ongoing epidemic, there's an expectation the state Health Department can report ‘this many deaths per county, and this many deaths per county,’” Hughes said.